These are the games that make the difference. The games where holding on, dogging it out, seeing it through are more important than the flash and the sizzle and the genius. The games where you can have a difficult home tie in the UEFA Cup (yes, it’s the UEFA Cup, you know it is, it always will be) on Thursday and then head to one of the hardest away ties in the league on Sunday and come away with a win.
The team selection was odd. There was no way of telling whether it spoke of weariness, wariness or the addressing of ill-discipline. The two strikers most notably involved in Thursday’s penalty issue (one of whom had suffered one of his weaker games for the club and whose body language had been atrocious for the last ten minutes of the game, the other who had provided one of his sharpest showings in a red shirt and whose surname is Balotelli) were both relegated to the bench. The one that had caused the penalty furore didn’t make a showing all afternoon.
No strikers on the pitch but three on the bench. No available central midfielders to back up the Henderson/Allen axis other than Emre, moved to the left of the three to accommodate Dejan Lovren being booed incessantly by the Southampton fans who seem to think that agitating for a move and going on strike to get to a club currently beneath them in the league are bad things. Both defenders played, bizarrely, out of position. Other than Lovren and the utterly, utterly magnificent Martin Skrtel - and obviously the now ridiculously commanding (and who saw that coming?) Simon Mignolet - everything else was midfielders. Midfielders all over the place. Wing back midfielders, attacking midfielders, all the midfielders.
The plan seemed to be to sit deep and poke at Southampton’s rearguard. Keep the ball, be patient. The plan probably wasn’t to score a wonder goal after three minutes but Phillippe Coutinho - who we all KNEW needed a rest to avoid burn out - is in the kind of form that allows players to do stupidly extravagant things and make them work. Thirty yards out, nothing happening, no sense of danger, top corner, in off the bar, 1-0. Thank you very much. We have a genius in our ranks. A very calm, considered genius. He may not have the madness of Luis Suarez but he’s offering the creativity and the surprise that this new Liverpool shape is built on.
The shape. The shape. The wing-backs stopped being wing-backs very quickly. Our wingers became full-backs in the face of endless Southampton pressure. Southampton were the better team for long stretches. They responded to going behind with the football that we expect from them now. Unfortunately for them, they came up against Martin Skrtel who had clearly decided that his description for the day was ‘tower’.
Everything was resilience, everything was defence. It was grim and gritty and a long way from attractive or free flowing and it involved surviving two penalty calls (it also involved not receiving a spot kick ourselves for a clear foul on Sterling - take the ball by all means but if you go right through the man then it’s a pen) and it was exactly what we needed.
United’s (hilarious) loss to Swansea, Spurs and West Ham drawing (nobody talking about Harry Kane’s dive this morning then?); these are the types of result that we historically fail to capitalise on and Southampton a place where we struggle. Not so now. This Liverpool has decided whatnot can defend as well as attack, it would prefer to have some fun but it can dig in and ground out when called upon.
Five successive clean sheets on the road? First time since 1985. And that was quite a good team that one. Only up one place - to sixth - but now a mere three points off third and on an excellent run. City and Chelsea have the top two positions tied up but are you really going to argue that we can’t finish third?
Rodgers pointed out after the game that the upsurge in form was due to ‘that new defensive coach that everybody wanted’. We should probably all stop questioning him, he has a tendency to work things out. Next season? Add a solid start to the run we seem to make in the second-half of every year and the league’s ours. For now? Been saying this for weeks: third and a cup. Or two.